Football: Sage Hill players will claim bigger role

Like many young high school football coaches, J.R. Tolver wants to be in control of everything. He learned last year, his third season at the helm of Sage Hill School, that isn't possible.

The team lost seven games, as many as it did in Tolver's first two seasons at the school. One of those games Tolver wasn't even around to coach. He missed it because an official ejected him for arguing with officials after a game.

The losses piled up and Sage Hill went on to finish third in the Academy League and miss the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs for the first time under Tolver.

Getting back to the postseason is the goal for the Lightning. The coach's approach to leading his team there will be much different this season.

Tolver, 32, is going to put his players in position to take over the team.

"One of the things I realized is that I can't control everything, because once seven o'clock on Friday night hits, it's now out of my hands," said Tolver, whose team finished 3-7, 1-3 in league last year. "My kids have to go out there, and they have to not only make the plays that are given to them, but motivate and encourage their teammates to do the same.

"We're really going to put our kids in a position to lead one another."

One way to do that is to leave his players in charge.

Players will run some practices, while Tolver said he and the rest of his staff watch from the stands drinking lemonade. If Tolver has a sour look on his face, it won't be because of the drink.

"It's going to be tough," Tolver said of following the player-run practices without him being in control.

The team's first chance at being on its own is Friday. Here are the players who will run the show:

Quarterback: Harrison Ray is the starter and the senior has experience. He stepped in last year for a handful of games after a leg injury plagued standout Taylor Petty's season.

The offense changes, though, going from the Wildcat to the pistol. Ray will still take the snap in shotgun formation, but closer to the center.

"We're hoping that we'll be able to throw the ball," said Tolver, whose team struggled moving the ball through the air last season.

Backing up Ray is sophomore CJ McCord, a transfer from Edison. The third quarterback is freshman Griffin Vrabeck.

Running backs: Charlie Kim takes over after first-team All-Academy League tailback Eric Cheng graduated.

Kim, a senior, is expected to produce, but Tolver said he isn't as quick and explosive as Cheng. The tailback Kim is replacing accounted for more than half of the team's offensive yards and touchdowns.

Cheng rushed for 543 yards and five touchdowns and caught 12 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown last season.

Zuriel Aaron is the team's other back. He didn't play much last year as he joined the team in the middle of the season. Tolver said Aaron, a senior, is one of the team's best athletes.

Receivers: The wideouts expect to be targeted more this season. The total numbers from a year ago — 51 catches for 616 yards and two touchdowns — are low.

Vrabeck, sophomore Beau Roth and senior Thomas Fenner are the main targets.

When the offense goes four wide, Tolver might move Ray to receiver and have McCord play quarterback.

Tolver said Ray is arguably the team's best all-around athlete and he wants to use him whenever he can.

Tight end: The offense will rarely use a tight end, but when it does, Fenner will line up at the position. He finished with 10 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns last season.

Offensive line: The guys up front have matured. One player who has improved every year is guard Nick Francoeur, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior.

Francoeur, a second-team all-league pick last year, returns as a third-year starter. Also back are junior tackle Lucas Ellison (6-1, 220), a second-team all-league performer, junior center Daschel Grammer (5-10, 200), and junior Jack Bick (6-0, 240).

At the other tackle position, seniors Jason Cowan (5-8, 205) and Ryan Morgan (5-10, 205), and junior Tom Ficcadenti (6-2, 205) are battling.

"We learned quickly with a young offensive line [last year], it doesn't matter how good your skill players are," Tolver said. "If you can't control the game up front, then you're going to have a hard time being consistent. This year, we're very confident. Last year, they didn't have driver licenses. This year, they're a little older, a little stronger, a little bigger and a little better. We will be able to control the game."

Defensive line: Fenner anchors this unit after earning first-team all-league accolades last season.

Fenner, who made 55 tackles and recovered three fumbles as a junior, is the nose tackle.

Playing alongside Fenner (5-10, 185) is Aaron (5-10, 185).

Ficcadenti, Bick and Cowan are in competition for the third down-lineman position in the 3-3-5 defensive scheme.

The alignment is new at Sage Hill. Gregory Taylor introduced it upon returning to the school as the defensive coordinator after spending last year as assistant at Hampton University in Virginia.

Linebackers: Junior Logan Hamilton and Ellison are outside, with senior Joe Melita in the middle.

Secondary: Kim moved from linebacker, a position at which he received second-team all-league honors last year, to cornerback.

Tolver prefers to use Kim's athleticism in the secondary. He and McCord give the Lightning two strong cornerbacks. The team lost standouts Conner Ascher and Cheng.

Ray is the free safety, Roth the strong safety and junior Will Burns is a safety-linebacker hybrid.

Special teams: Melita returns as the kicker and punter, where he earned second-team all-league recognition in 2011.

Ray is the punt returner and Kim and Aaron the kickoff returners.

david.carrillo@latimes.com

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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